Image courtesy of Ed Brambley
One of the teachers I had in university made heavy use of an overhead projector (OHP). He used the roller type of transparency and he had handwritten notes for each class on separate rolls. He would come into class, put the next ‘scroll’ on the OHP, turn off the lights, plop down beside the OHP, and roll the transparency to the first section. He proceeded to read over the densely packed section and then roll the ‘scroll’ to the next section. The first time this happened, I panicked. Being a novice notetaker, I was attempting to write out his notes word for word, but since he could read out the notes faster than I could write them, I could only get through about a quarter of the page before it scrolled off the screen. I learned very quickly to only jot down what I needed to remember and then expanded on those notes when I got home later that day.
That was me as a university student in my own language with a basic understanding of the topic. Imagine that you are an English language student taking courses in a language you are still learning to understand at a general level. Add technical language, a variance in speaking styles, and the pressure of marks and you have a situation which can cause no end of frustration and heartache for the student.
In my MA TESOL course, one of my required textbooks was Learning to Listen by David J. Mendelsohn (1994). Surprisingly, the text is quite readable and fairly short, yet it packs a lot of material in the limited space. One of the sections I was just re-reading was on academic listening since that is the group of students I am working with at the moment. Mendelsohn notes that the typical ESL listening task is focussed on understanding, whereas the typical academic lecture concentrates on learning. On the surface, this distinction was eluding me, but the more I thought about it, the more it started to make sense. Understanding or comprehending something we are listening to pertains to grasping the words and information, but not necessarily making sense of the material. We ask students to answer questions in listening such as, “What does Mike do for a living?” or, “Where does Sally live?” This simple factual information only pertains to the words or phrases that were stated. Some listening tasks ask students to dig deeper, but we don’t care, nor should we care, about the content per se. Our goal is language learning, not content teaching. There are content based language course that do focus on the subject matter, but this is not the focus of most ESL classes.
Academic listening is centred on teaching the material through various means. A lecture is one way to share this information and the student is required to listen and comprehend the material in a deeper way. It is knowledge first, connections second. Language structure really doesn’t have much of a role in the lecture. After saying that, how something is presented and the choice of words and phrases definitely has an influence on how the material is perceived by the student. This type of listening is what Mendelsohn refers to as “listening in order to learn”. This form of listening is quite difficult for language learners in that it requires them to listen, comprehend, synthesize, and write down in the form of notes. Differences in the speaker’s delivery style and attitude are also things that all students need to deal with (Mendelsohn, 1994).
Mendelsohn also notes some other differences between traditional language learning classroom listening tasks and academic listening:
- Academic listening is often quite technical. This makes it exceptionally difficult for teachers to implement in the classroom. Not all students in the classroom will have the same level of understanding or are even in the same area of study. This means that the vocabulary and knowledge disparity create a chasmic gap to overcome.
- Listening in university classes comes in a series, not just a single lecture. Each lecture builds on the knowledge gained in the first. Yet, the lectures we use in the EAP classroom are often pulled from middle of a series and requires a great deal more background knowledge than most students have.
- The style of delivery in a lecture is that which is most often used in writing. It is almost as if the professor is reading the lecture, when in fact he or she may be simply speaking in that style.
- Note taking is critical. We need to spend a lot more time helping students learn how to take notes and giving them ample time to practice. Mendelsohn mentions that we need to be careful not to force one type of note taking on the students. That would require providing students with options and allowing them to choose what helps them the most.
- Discourse markers are critical in understanding what the main and sub points are in the lecture. Mendelsohn notes that most language students fail to make use of discourse markers and spend time on looking at the lecture sentence by sentence. Even when students start to listen for discourse markers, content such as metaphors and interaction with students is not often taken down in their notes.
- Focus on helping students take better notes.
- Help students understand the use of discourse markers.
- Spend time in dealing with metaphors in class. This will also help them in processing the content.
- Make use of extensive listening on their own. Provide students with plenty of listening material based on the content of their study, especially those that are in a series.
- Vary the delivery style of the lectures we give as examples.
I am sure there is more that we could do to help students with their listening skills, but that is where you come in. I would love to hear from you, either in the comment section or on Twitter, and learn from your experience and understanding regarding helping students become better academic listeners.
Mendelsohn, David J. (1994). Learning to listen. Carlsbad, CA: Dominie Press.